But what about when we re-read a book from our past, one that we weren't all that crazy about, and find that somehow it has improved? Did the Good Reading Fairy come while our backs were turned and fill that bad puppy with reading goodness?
I thought of this after reading Why Everyone Should Re-read the Books You Were Forced to Read When You Were a Teenager at The Owl's Skull. Jessica McCort recalls reading Huckleberry Finn as a junior or senior in high school. She says she hated "this book with every single fiber of my being. ... I didn't understand its humor. I didn't understand much of the political environment in which it was embroiled. I hated the fact that women/girls didn't seem to come off extremely well... I thought Huck was a pretty horrible character, and Tom Sawyer ... don't even get me started on him."
She re-read it during her junior year of college. "...on the second go around, I loved the book. I thought it was uproariously funny. I was pierced by both its humor and its humanity (I still hated the last several chapters, I have to say, but for very different reasons than why I didn't like the book when I was in high school. And I still didn't like Tom, but I came around to Huck)."
Jessica then offers a list of books she didn't care for in the past and that she'd be willing to give another shot. They all appear to be classics. And, as she said, they were all assigned reading.
Jessica's post led me to mull on a couple of points.
- Somewhere in my reading these last few months (I apologize that I cannot recall where) someone raised the question of what society gains by forcing teenagers to read classics they are known, as a group, to dislike. I focused on Jessica's Huckleberry Finn example because I've heard before that it's not embraced by teenagers. I didn't care for it much, myself, when I had to read at least part of it as a teenager and can recall some scenes I enjoyed when I was older, but even then it's one of those books that I'm glad to have knowledge of because of its impact on what came after it, but that's it. In fact, I wonder if Twain/Clemens isn't an author who is beloved these days more because of his reputation than because of enjoyment or real knowledge of his work. And, let's be honest, was my son the only teenager who spent all his freshman or sophomore year of high school dreading having to read Shakespeare in the spring? No, Shakespeare didn't end up becoming a favorite writer.
- When as an adult we re-read a classic we disliked as a teenager, was the first reading and probably instruction a factor in the Good Reading Fairy experience? Or is it simply that at that later time of life we were experienced enough to appreciate the book, period, whether we had some earlier knowledge of the book or not? The earlier reading was meaningless, maybe worse than meaningless since disliking a work at fifteen could mean we won't even consider reading it at twenty-five or thirty or fifty-five.
What's the point of "English" class these days?
- Is it to insist that young people read The Odyssey, Julius Caesar, Moby Dick, or any of the classics Jessica McCourt recalls reading and disliking? Should we be holding up the works of dead, white, English speaking writers as having some value above all others? And if we should, is forcing adolescents to read this stuff working?
- Is it to encourage life-long reading so that young people become literate citizens capable of understanding writing in all fields of study, thus making them better able to make decisions affecting their lives? Will the works of dead, white, English speaking writers achieve that end?
How many people who disliked Huck in their youth go on to read it again? The Good Reading Fairy can fill classics with all kinds of reading goodness. If we never re-read those books we didn't like the first time around, we'll never find it.